Humanities

The importance of developing hard data about the value of the humanities (essay)

Making the Case for the Humanities

We need only two things to convince our communities, public officials, local employers and parents of students and prospective students about the value of a degree in the humanities: stories and data.

In the humanities, we have always used stories well. We can assemble lots of anecdotes about our graduates and how, now that they’re gainfully employed, they use what they learned in our classes. Anecdotes are clearly not enough, however. We’re definitely not winning the public relations contest about what aspects of public higher education are worth investing in. So how can we supplement our good stories with good data, while keeping the discussion firmly rooted in the humanities?

In an effort to share strategies and to get better at making the case for the value of humanities education, a group of about 40 humanities faculty members and administrators, local employers, and public humanities representatives in southern New England got together recently. We talked about what student success in the humanities looks like, how we could measure what it gives students and how we would know when we’ve helped students to achieve it.

The question of student success is on everyone’s radar these days, and the discussion usually refers to retention and graduation rates. Our discussion in New England pointed a different way, however. We wanted to bring employers into the conversation to help them to understand what our students are learning and to help us to learn what they value in new employees. That is especially important for those of us who take issues of racial and economic diversity seriously. As Karen Cardozo, assistant professor of interdisciplinary studies at Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts, pointed out at the meeting, if we can show that humanities degrees have value in the workplace, we can assure working-class students, first-generation students and students of color that following a passion for history, philosophy, literature or music can lead to a good job, too.

Here’s how our meeting went:

First, we assembled by tables, trying to making sure an employer and a public humanities representative were at each table. (Public humanities representatives include those who work at museums, state National Endowment for the Humanities affiliates, cultural councils and the like.) Employers from publishing, local government and local small businesses also participated. (We hope to involve some larger employers next time we meet.) We also mixed in representatives of two- and four-year colleges, as well as public and private institutions.

Each table considered one question at a time, and we then discussed our answers in the group as a whole. Here are the questions:

  • What can a humanities graduate do?
  • What (else) should a humanities graduate be able to do?
  • How can we make sure students graduate with this knowledge or these skills?
  • How can we measure or assess whether they can do what we say they can do?

It was great to have employers at each table, and we moved them around between groups for each question so the tables could get different perspectives. Some of the employers were already savvy about what a humanities education delivers; others weren’t sure what exactly constitutes the humanities.

Together, we compiled a list of the skills that we think graduates have cultivated in their humanities education:

  • Critical thinking
  • Communications skills
  • Writing skills, with style
  • Organizational skills
  • Listening skills
  • Flexibility
  • Creativity
  • Cultural competencies, intercultural sensitivity and an understanding of cultural and historical context, including on global topics
  • Empathy/emotional intelligence
  • Qualitative analysis
  • People skills
  • Ethical reasoning
  • Intellectual curiosity

As part of our list, we also agreed that graduates should have the ability to:

  • Meet deadlines
  • Construct complex arguments
  • Provide attention to detail and nuance (close reading)
  • Ask the big questions about meaning, purpose, the human condition
  • Communicate in more than one language
  • Understand differences in genre (mode of communication)
  • Identify and communicate appropriate to each audience
  • Be comfortable dealing with gray areas
  • Think abstractly beyond an immediate case
  • Appreciate differences and conflicting perspectives
  • Identify problems as well as solving them
  • Read between the lines
  • Receive and respond to feedback

Then we asked what we think our graduates should be able to do but perhaps can’t -- or not as a result of anything we’ve taught them, anyway. The employers were especially valuable here, highlighting the ability to:

  • Use new media, technologies and social media
  • Work with the aesthetics of communication, such as design
  • Perform a visual presentation and analysis
  • Identify, translate and apply skills from course work
  • Perform data analysis and quantitative research
  • Be comfortable with numbers
  • Work well in groups, as leader and as collaborator
  • Take risks
  • Identify processes and structures
  • Write and speak from a variety of rhetorical positions or voices
  • Support an argument
  • Identify an audience, research it and know how to address it
  • Know how to locate one’s own values in relation to a task one has been asked to perform
  • Reflect

They also mentioned a need for better technological, project-management and conversational and interview skills.

We also discussed creating tables that would link the knowledge, skills and aptitudes of the first two questions to the kinds of work students might do after graduation, task by task. We’ve assigned that work to the participating employers.

To make sure that our students can graduate with the knowledge and skills we want to see, we know we would have to make some changes to the way our degrees are structured. Some of the changes we talked about at the meeting were:

  • Providing more faculty development to help professors be more explicit and intentional in language about the skills being taught
  • Creating a one-credit course on the relation of humanities to work and the professions
  • Using required courses (general education) and events (orientation) to introduce the need to connect courses and skills
  • Being intentional about double majoring, adding minors that enable students to pair professional training with humanities
  • Using successful alumni in programming
  • Integrating student employment with academics, through course work or portfolio reflection
  • Infusing reflective writing into courses
  • Encouraging community engagement with the curriculum
  • Providing avenues for student creativity to demonstrate higher-order skills
  • Taking on the idea of maker space—what are the humanities making?
  • Giving students self-assessment skills
  • Developing portfolios that include both work and reflection linking course work to other kinds of engagement, such as employment and student activities
  • Structured work shadowing opportunities
  • Creating local employer/faculty advisory groups to determine workforce needs and establish a common language
  • Building reflection, work, community engagement and shadowing into the credit structure
  • Capitalizing in four-year colleges and universities on work already being done at two-year institutions

The final task at our meeting was to come up with ways to measure whether we are doing what we say we are doing now, as well as if we pursue the changes we want to make. We developed the following list:

  • Alumni surveys, to determine short- and long-term impact of humanities education
  • Student surveys, at entry and exit, about how their ways of thinking have changed
  • Internship supervisor surveys
  • Determining whether local employers hire our graduates, why or why not, and whether those graduates have the needed knowledge and skills
  • Using capstone courses to assess ways students have been asked to combine humanities and work
  • Gathering information that can contribute to big data. Who else is collecting what we seek, and how can we combine their data with ours?

That was the most difficult assignment, and it’s the shortest list that our group developed. That, of course, was not surprising. Assessment has always been challenging, as any regional accreditation team can tell you.

But we had started the afternoon asserting that we want the general public to support humanities education and to understand the value of what we do, and so we knew we must to find good ways to collect evidence. That’ll be a topic in our next meeting.

We agreed that the next step, when we reconvene in May, will be for all of us to have made some progress on our own campuses toward both adding education in the new skills we think humanities students need and finding ways of measuring our success.

If you’re working on humanities student success initiatives, what tactics are you trying? With whom are you working? Are you getting any traction in your institution or region?

Making the case for the humanities can start on the campus, but it ultimately has to convince funders, parents and employers, too. We’re hoping to make southern New England the first Humanities Success Zone in the country -- where an employer with some job openings asks, “What kind of person would add some real value to our company beyond the specific skills we need for this job?” We want the answer that springs to mind to be: a humanities graduate.

Paula M. Krebs is dean of the College of Humanities and Social Sciences at Bridgewater State University, in Massachusetts. On Twitter, she is @PaulaKrebs.

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Higher ed needs to find better ways to make the case for the humanities (essay)

Making the Case for the Humanities

A friend who teaches classics at a fine liberal arts college told me that she had met the president of the institution walking across campus. He greeted her, and they chatted for a few seconds. Then the president asked, “How can we justify putting resources into Ancient Greek 101 where the enrollment is eight, while the enrollment in Economics 101 is 189?” My friend reported she had become flustered because she was unprepared for that question. She told me she believed that we needed to be doing a better job of making the case for the classics, the humanities and liberal education in general.

Wait a minute, I thought. That’s his job, or ought to be. Her job is to advance and transmit knowledge in a core humanistic discipline. What’s his game? Intimidation? Making himself look good because, in fact, he was not about to let the teaching of ancient Greek end on his watch after more than two centuries on that campus? Or was he genuinely asking for help?

Still, I thought, she is right: we do need to improve the understanding of why studying the humanities is important for today’s students (and administrators). Maybe, I thought, I should pitch in by writing an op-ed piece for Inside Higher Ed making the case for these fields.

But the phrase “making the case” stuck in my craw. It sounded so courtroom, so defense attorney, or rather so much like the message behind a now-terminated presidential candidacy: “Trust me, we know best.” It is surely self-serving.

After all, like most people who write such pieces, I have made my living on the humanities. Of course, I want them to flourish, but who will pay attention to an obviously self-interested spokesperson? Preaching to the choir may win praise from like-minded colleagues but will never be seen by the people who most need to rethink the assumptions that shape contemporary higher education: that college is a commodity sold to student-consumers, it’s all about “workforce readiness,” its goal is “return on investment” and only the STEM disciplines can guarantee success after graduation. These unexamined premises pose the most insidious threat, not just to humanists, but to all students over their lifetimes.

So it’s worth brainstorming about alternative strategies. Here are a half dozen possibilities. A brief brainstorming session with friends and colleagues can, I am sure, produce other, perhaps better ones. However, these are, as we say nowadays, cost-efficient -- that is, they do not take a lot of time away from teaching and scholarship. The effort is focused on helping people outside academe do the heavy lifting. Alumni, civic and business leaders, parents, and undergraduates themselves have more credibility than professional humanists, and they can surprise you by their articulate enthusiasm. And, yes, they can have more impact than another op-ed piece “making the case.”

First: Call attention to what is already available. Many important studies and some eloquent advocacy for the humanities have appeared in recent years: a report by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, Harvard University’s 2013 report “Mapping the Future: The Teaching of the Arts and Humanities at Harvard College,” and “Securing America’s Future: The Power of Liberal Arts Education” from the Council of Independent Colleges, to name just a few. Most of these, however, have had a short shelf life after an initial flurry of attention, and they deserve a much wider readership.

That’s even more likely to be the case with shorter pieces. Here’s one example: Hunter Rawlings, the president of the Association of American Universities, published a powerful op-ed piece, “College Is Not a Commodity,” in The Washington Post not long ago, attacking one of the clichés that are so prevalent these days. The essay is an evergreen that merits a second wave of circulation on social media. In fact, it should be handed to any college administrator who seems to talk commodity talk when they should be thinking hard about how best to educate today’s students.

Second: Check the departmental website. Does it really address the questions that parents and students are likely to have about majoring in the field? Ask some students to grade the content. They’ll probably want to see if claims about the desirability of such a major are backed up by strong evidence and clear argumentation.

Douglas MacLean, a professor in the philosophy department at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, got thinking about that after Marco Rubio made his famous pronouncement, “Welders make more money than philosophers. We need more welders and less (sic) philosophers.” Answering that claim led to collecting data, as MacLean explained in a Time magazine article, some of which was posted on the department’s webpage. MacLean notes, “Studies have shown philosophy majors have outperformed nearly every other major on the law school aptitude test, the GREs and the GMAT, the admission test for business schools. (They also outearn welders.)”

Third: Ask former students to reflect on their educational experience in the humanities and then disseminate their observations. One way to get the discussion started is to provide the link to comments by students on other campuses, such as the remarks in Frank Bruni’s New York Times piece “College, Poetry and Purpose.” Ask if the experiences cited there match their own. Then put students’ own stories on the departmental website and out on social media. Ask, don’t tell. It doesn’t all have to be glory hallelujah! Find out what graduates working outside the academic humanities have found valuable in their education, then help their message be heard. And keep the email addresses for the following strategy.

Fourth: Put the alumni office to work. Vanessa Ryan, associate dean of the graduate school at Brown University, describes a plan that worked well there: “In 2012, I organized a TEDx [talk] on life, learning and liberal education, bringing back eight alumni from different career paths, including a doctor, an engineer, a film producer and a person in finance. It also features two current Brown faculty members and a current Brown undergraduate, selected through a student challenge event. Each speaker reflected in short talks on the value of liberal education. You can find the videos here and our website here.” Alumni Relations officers love events of this sort and can help organize (and pay for) them.

Fifth: Set clear responsibilities in institutional leaders’ jobs. When selecting a senior administrator -- a dean, provost, chancellor or president -- ask if the job description includes the ability to articulate the value of a broad liberal education. If not, why not? The same questions apply to incentive packages that are increasingly part of senior-level compensation. Making this criterion explicit early on gives leverage once the person is in place -- and especially when performance reviews are conducted.

Finally: Hijack Parents’ Day. Parents are understandably worried about the hollowing out of the economy and the horror stories they hear of students with huge debt loads who can’t find a decent job. Again, both data and descriptions of the actual lives of recent graduates can help allay their fears.

Most important, however, is a carefully structured dialogue among parents themselves. Make sure they have before them the 2014 Purdue-Gallup Index report, a study of more than 30,000 college graduates, showing what aspects of education make a positive difference in the workplace and the community. That report should move the conversation from nervous chatter about debt loads and return on investment to an exploration of what parents really want for their kids and what can best build satisfaction over the long run.

Once you introduce the idea of satisfaction in life, it should be possible to problematize (as we humanists like to say) assumptions about success and rewards. Such discussions play out on the humanities’ home turf: many humanists have thought long and hard about discourses and how they change over time. Here’s a chance to move from theory to practice. That’s what is most needed right now: not making the case but developing richer and more meaningful ways of thinking about what a college education should be.

W. Robert Connor has served as director of the National Humanities Center and president of the Teagle Foundation. He blogs at www.wrbertconnor.com.

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Data show gains for minority students in humanities undergraduate degrees but not doctorates

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Study finds gains in undergraduate degrees awarded, but losses at the doctoral level.

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How to chair a humanities department in a challenging environment (essay)

While arguments and counterarguments fly back and forth about the value of the humanistic enterprise, department chairs might be left wondering how to preserve and promote their departments, writes Timothy S. Huebner.

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A Rhodes Scholar compares rowing to his humanities education (essay)

Most mornings, upon waking, I pull on my sneakers -- they call them “trainers” here -- and head to the river. This time of year at the University of Oxford, where I study as a Rhodes Scholar, the sun rises late and sets early. My walk to the boathouse is lit by moonlight. I follow a trail, canopied by trees, that juts between two tributaries. The water on one side is placid but pure, a meeting place for the ducks and geese that stream past my feet. The other tributary is clotted with filmy moss. Birds halfheartedly peck at the green sludge and flutter on.

Sometimes, when I get to the river, the banks are draped in mist. Through the fog, I hear faint shouts from teams heaving their boats on the water.

How did I get here? To England, to Oxford, to rising early to row for my college?

The rowing question yields a practical answer. My clumsiness, lack of coordination and general physical mediocrity leave me fit only for sports based on endurance and hard work rather than agility or adroitness. (Hence my high school years spent running cross-country in the North Carolina heat for a coach who extolled vomit as the visible evidence of a race well run.)

The environment that I now inhabit -- ancient, alien, yet suffused with peculiar charm -- is distant in many ways from the Charlottesville, Va., that I love. But some striking parallels exist between my undergraduate education at the University of Virginia and the time at Oxford that I spend training on the water.

Rowing, it turns out, is highly aesthetic. The sport relies on many of the same skills I honed as an undergraduate earning a humanities degree. In developing an analogy between rowing and a humanities education, however, I will note one important difference between those two endeavors: rowing is a luxury, whereas a humanities education is not. This difference, I think, points to one quality that makes public colleges and universities like UVA -- institutions that offer a world-class humanities education to students from a wide range of socioeconomic backgrounds -- distinctively valuable.

College rowing involves eight (sometimes four) people moving in tandem: rolling forward to place the blades of their oars, cocked, in the water behind them; pressing back, straining against the foot plates, to propel the blades through the water. I knew none of this when I arrived at Oxford last year. Learning to row, like attaining familiarity with an academic subject, requires rigorous practice and coaching.

Rowing, however, demands more than comprehension of the mechanics involved. To row well, one needs to cultivate certain habits of attention. A lapse in concentration can set the boat off balance. At all times, one must be aware of one’s posture, the height of one’s hands, one’s position on the slide. As I continued to row, it became clear to me that the sport required not just attention but, specifically, a form of aesthetic attention -- not unlike the capacities that my undergraduate course work in literature sought to hone.

When people say that rowing is a beautiful sport, there are reasons for taking this assessment literally. The boat heaves, as if breathing, as everyone rolls up and presses back in synchrony. The rhythm of each person’s movement meets a parallel rhythm: one’s heartbeat, which accelerates as the boat gains speed. And the boat, a bounded whole, cuts through the water, the blades of the oars scuttling across the surface, charting a path along sinuous banks and yawning trees that dip their branches in the water like spindly fingers.

Rowing’s aesthetic attributes -- tempo, symmetry, balance, repetition and unity -- are not accidental. In fact, they are essential to the sport. A crew that is asymmetrical in power -- with rowers on one side possessing more strength than their counterparts -- will steer off course. A team that falls out of synchrony becomes inefficient. A stroke that traces an elegant arc before dipping cleanly into the water is not just a beautiful stroke; it is a powerful one.

In rowing, athletic success and aesthetic achievement are intertwined. Rowing, like much of my humanities course work in college -- specifically in literature and art history -- takes as one of its central premises the idea that the aesthetic is a worthy object of careful study.

And rowing, much like an undergraduate literature class, instills the belief that such study entails developing certain habits of attention. Both endeavors -- learning to row and earning a literature degree -- require a keen awareness of what artists and writers call form. In rowing, form refers to body positioning, rather than genre, texture or anything else that literature and art critics might speak of. But in both cases, form connotes an aesthetic shape essential to the enterprise at hand: the motion of the boat, the beauty of the poem.

Most mornings, then, I do two things at once: I row, and I drift into aesthetic contemplation. (Sometimes to a fault: “Eyes in the boat, Tyson!” my coach will shout.) This conjunction brings me to an important fault line in my analogy between rowing and an education in the humanities. There is a broad perception in American culture that both rowing and aesthetic inquiry are luxuries: inessential and restricted to a leisured class. Rowing is, I think, a genuine luxury. The boats and equipment require staggering capital investment. The sport tends to thrive at posh secondary schools in the United States and at institutions like Oxford, where one of my teammates (who, I hasten to add, is a lovely person) told me he was thinking about buying an island -- islands off the Scottish coast apparently sell for around 20,000 pounds -- but decided it was a poor investment because of climate change.

The view that aesthetic contemplation is a luxury is, by contrast, false -- and especially pernicious when applied to liberal arts education. The resistance of American colleges and universities to this view is what enabled me to make it to Oxford in the first place. I attended public school in North Carolina and then matriculated at UVA, a public university, where my professors encouraged me to pursue my interest in literature. They pressed me to approach literature not as an avenue for self-indulgent reverie, but as a way of gaining insight into matters of urgent, daily significance in human lives: issues such as self-understanding, social disenfranchisement and moral obligation. That I received such an education testifies to the hard work of my professors and the seriousness of UVA’s commitment to the liberal arts.

In fact, of the seven Rhodes Scholars selected from UVA in the last 10 years, four have either embarked upon, or are strongly considering, an academic career in the humanities. A fifth student majored in modern literature and religious studies while an undergraduate. This sample is too small, and the Rhodes selection process too random, for us to draw unqualified conclusions. But it seems indisputable that UVA’s humanities departments mark an area of strength that Rhodes selection committees have, in recent years, recognized.

Public universities (as well as independent colleges and universities with generous financial aid programs) that continue to emphasize humanistic education deserve praise. UVA still has work to do in recruiting and supporting students from socioeconomically disadvantaged backgrounds. Nonetheless, Virginians are lucky to have a flagship institution that prizes liberal arts education as a necessary investment in the state’s human capital. I attended UVA financed largely by need-based grants. Without the university’s understanding of aesthetic inquiry not as a luxury but as a vital human good, I doubt I would be at Oxford today. My hope is that my alma mater, as well as other colleges and universities, retains this commitment to the humanities so as to awaken other students, from any socioeconomic background, to the possibilities that a humanities education engenders -- possibilities that include, in my fortunate case, solitary walks down moonlit trails. Maybe one day I’ll walk down that trail again, and I’ll see those future students training on the river -- rowing in tempo, but every so often snatching glances at the sky.

Charlie Tyson graduated from the University of Virginia in 2014 and last year earned an M.St. in English literature from the University of Oxford, where he is currently working toward an M.Sc. in history of science, medicine and technology. He is a former intern at Inside HIgher Ed. This article is adapted from a piece that first appeared in UVA Today.

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Job openings are down in English and foreign languages

Faculty positions decline for third year in a row, MLA report finds.

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How misguided university policies are harming the humanities, arts and sciences (essay)

The news media is awash with the question of the future of the humanities in higher education. Are the humanities dead? Do they have value? Do they pay off? Do today’s students have an interest in the liberal arts? Does it matter?

Right or wrong, the easy assumption is that economic forces play out in university funding, job opportunities in STEM fields, and economic calculations of students and families. Those economic forces combine with public perceptions about the limited financial returns of areas of study that seemingly lack direct vocational resonance -- notably, the humanities.

That common view attracts some criticism. Professors and pundits defend the worth of the humanities -- from building character to thinking critically to valuing tradition. They attack philistinism, and they cite estimates of rising enrollments in the humanities and lifetime versus starting salaries. A few voices speak to preparing for multiple or sequential careers and lifelong learning. Fewer still point to the exaggerated numbers of high-paying, high-tech STEM jobs.

In my view as a university professor, too many of our defenses are weak ones. We should be able to mount a much stronger case and demonstrate more vigorously and convincingly our advantages, which are very real. Meanwhile, not recognized are the ways in which universities themselves have actively attacked and even crippled the humanities, the arts, and also the sciences -- the so-called foundations of higher education.

My own large public university does this through a series of policies and then a supposed ignorance of the combined impact of those policies. Not only do they actively damage the institution’s ability to conduct its business and to meet the needs of its students, faculty and component colleges but together they also constitute administrative malpractice.

The fact is that the university has chosen to admit and enroll increasingly more students in professional and preprofessional areas, especially engineering and business. Among the consequences has been the decline of about 40 percent over the past four years in both numbers of majors and course enrollments in the humanities. But the university did not take this path through any public discussion, explicit decision making or consideration of the major effects.

The principal weapon is a policy called the One University Enrollment Plan. Officially, one of its stated goals is to raise the average ACT scores of the entering first-year class. And this it did -- by 1.1 points in the last five years, from 27.8 to 28.9 at the main campus in Columbus, Ohio. That allows the university to claim that the incoming class is the “smartest” in its history. In addition, it counts in U.S. News & World Report rankings.

Less publicized is the goal of increasing the proportion of entering students from outside the state. Why? Well, other state universities do it. It also brings in more revenue from higher tuition rates. Access for in-state students can wait, despite the fact that access is part of the university’s vision. The percentage of African-American students at the Columbus campus has continued to fall, as it has since 2000.

That is one set of issues. Another is how this policy is enacted. In that enactment, the university reveals the assumptions of how it defines itself. Focusing on the rate of increase in applications to the campus’s colleges, the university achieves the goal by admitting a larger percent of the engineering and business students who apply and admitting fewer of the humanities, arts and science students who do. In other words, that seemingly simple arithmetic operation is not a matter of mathematics or science but rather a statement about the nature, purpose and shape of higher education.

For example, and surprising to many people today, the number of applicants in the humanities increases steadily and is approaching historically high levels -- up 25 percent since 2012 and 52 percent since 2004 at the Columbus campus. But numbers admitted have declined by 37 percent since 2010, the year before the enrollment plan began, and by 18 percent since 2012. Similarly, since the enrollment plan started in 2011, the proportion of admitted students enrolling (the yield rate) in the humanities (only 30.5 percent of admits in 2014) has declined at a faster rate than in the university as a whole.

The arts show the same trends. The fact that the rate of increase in applicants has been less in the humanities and the arts and sciences than in engineering and business has been allowed to obscure the fact that the total number of applications and therefore interest in the former areas is increasing. Admissions and enrollment in the sciences, perhaps surprisingly, have also declined but not as steeply. It is more than ironic that science is left out of STEM when it comes to admissions and enrollment efforts.

The results? I have been told that the College of Engineering has more students than it needs. Meanwhile, the Arts and Science College, the largest, cannot pay its bills and is declining in all dimensions.

What’s more, the enrollment plan interacts with other policies that also have a detrimental effect on the arts, humanities and sciences. Those include lowering and redistributing general education program requirements and basing unit budgets overwhelmingly on student course enrollments (semester credit hours) -- so-called responsibility-centered management. Under the combined impact, the dean of Arts and Sciences declared a crisis, which the news media reported last May.

The originators of the enrollment plan never considered its impact on the balance of students across the colleges or its effect on the operations of individual colleges. When asked about this, university officials told me honestly that they’d never looked at that. Nor was the simple fact that the average ACT scores could have been raised without unbalancing the university and weakening its central areas. In the current economic climate, many talented high school students interested in all fields of study have heightened interest in public universities. Of course, they need to be recruited, admitted and enrolled.

A university cannot construct its student body by blindly pursuing percentage increases in applications to the neglect of the undergraduate population over all or the impact on its academic components. A university is not determined by a popularity contest. In fact, its reason to exist is just the opposite.

Apart from overloading disproportionately some parts of the university and underserving (and underfunding) others, such actions ignore, for example, that the College of Engineering reportedly graduates a lower proportion of its entering students than other colleges (and is also marked by a gender imbalance).

Without a larger discussion and declared institutionwide policies about the present and future of higher education, such actions cripple the contemporary university’s core, compromise its declared mission and move from a balanced university to a vocational and technical institute. Indeed, such actions answer crucial and challenging questions about the future and the value of the liberal arts and sciences without ever asking them.

Harvey J. Graff is Ohio Eminent Scholar in Literacy Studies and professor of English and history at Ohio State University. His most recent book is Undisciplining Knowledge: Interdisciplinarity in the Twentieth Century (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2015).

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The humanities must work to promote their worth to the public (essay)

At a town hall campaign stop in South Carolina, Jeb Bush recently singled out an interesting group for attack: psychology, philosophy and liberal arts majors. He said:

“When a student shows up, they [their college or university] ought to say, ‘Hey, that psych major deal, that philosophy major thing, that's great, it's important to have liberal arts … but realize, you're going to be working a Chick-fil-A.’”

In the week since, Bush has drawn some well-deserved ire for his remarks. But those of us in the humanities would be deluding ourselves if we didn’t admit that we have a serious image problem. Policy makers like Bush have completely bought into the notion that a STEM degree is the only way to get a good job. If the humanities are going to reclaim the narrative, we have to work together and fight to promote our worth to the public.

We have a lot of catching up to do. For the past 20 years, American education policy has singularly promoted the science, technology, engineering and math fields, which has had a devastating impact on the arts and humanities. As a result, we have seen declining investments in non-STEM fields -- always paltry by contrast -- and shrinking student enrollments. Some universities have shuttered entire programs in the arts and humanities.

Worse, this has promoted a popular idea that degrees in non-STEM and nonbusiness fields are “useless” -- that building tech and selling tech are the only ways to ensure your financial future. This is in spite of mounting numbers of studies that indicate that America does not have a shortage of scientists and that a STEM degree does not ensure a better chance of employment or higher wages.

We in non-STEM fields have been slow to assert ourselves. Not enough of us have argued aggressively for the utility of our discipline, and those who have, such as the History Relevance Campaign and the Commission on the Humanities and Social Sciences (who drafted the excellent “The Heart of the Matter” report), have been fighting largely alone rather than as part of a coordinated, organized movement.

If we are to save our disciplines from irrelevance -- from the realm of the dilettante or hobbyist -- the answer is not to show our complementary utility to STEM fields (as advocates of “STEAM” have). Instead, we must rethink the common threads that our disciplines have to offer and how we present ourselves and our subjects. We should take a page from the STEM advocates’ playbook and argue the case for our disciplines vigorously, both in the public arena and to policy makers at the local, state and national levels.

STEM’s Rise

The focus on science has its roots in a Cold War mentality. In 1957, as the United States rose to the challenge that Sputnik presented, science education leaped to the forefront of the national consciousness. Being “competitive” internationally wasn’t just about economics anymore, it meant defeating the Soviets. This represented an existential crisis that rests at the bottom of our current conversations about STEM.

In the late 1990s, the National Science Foundation rebranded their fields as “STEM.” Since then, proponents of STEM education have presented it as the key to attaining a high-paying job and fixing the economy, and they have found a receptive audience. In 2005, the U.S. House of Representatives’ Committee on Science (now called the Committee on Science, Space and Technology) asked the National Academies to “conduct an assessment of America’s ability to compete and prosper in the 21st century.” Their solution, which they published in the apocalyptically named “Rising Above the Gathering Storm,” was an aggressive program of funding for STEM education as a way to ensure “quality jobs” for Americans. President George W. Bush then announced his American Competitiveness Initiative, aimed at promoting a STEM education agenda, which was superseded in 2007 by the America COMPETES Act.

Since the crash of 2008, anxiety about the future -- both personal and national -- has driven people further toward STEM. In addition to reauthorizing the COMPETES act in 2010, President Obama created his own STEM education program, Educate to Innovate. Now, even Sesame Street has created its own STEM education initiatives.

For students, the appeal of STEM education is understandable. College costs have ballooned, and job prospects have shrunk. Shouldering five- and six-figure student debts, they view college pragmatically and are attracted to the myth of a straight path into a lucrative career.

The problem for the arts and humanities is clear. As the American Academy of Sciences wrote in their 2014 funding report, even at its highest (in 2012), “spending for humanities research equaled 0.55% of the amount dedicated to science and engineering RD.” Congressional appropriations for the National Endowment for the Humanities dropped in the 1990s and have stayed flat or decreased since then. Enrollment in arts and humanities majors at leading universities has plummeted. And, heaping on even more financial injury, in 2012, Florida Governor Rick Scott proposed “differentiated tuition,” where those studying in STEM fields would pay less than those in disciplines that were not “strategic.”

How to Argue Our Worth Better

The response from scholars in the humanities has been fragmented. Some bristle at conceiving of their disciplines in terms of careers prepared for or skills taught. For them, the value of the arts and humanities is inherent: it leads people to live fuller, better-informed and more satisfying lives.

However, in the face of the fears of our students, their parents and public-policy makers who determine funding priorities -- and the easy answers that STEM proponents provide -- such a position is no longer sufficient. We must have better unifying principles and communicate them simply and forcefully in the public square. We must be better at showing the real, practical applications of what we do and argue not just for the inherent value of our disciplines but also their utility on the job market.

The unifying principle within STEM subjects is that they are, at their cores, focused on objects and objectivity. Though many STEM fields require significant creativity and intuition, they are fundamentally built on an objective approach to problems and solutions derived from data. Technology and engineering are, at their core, about designing and building things -- whether they be bridges or computer systems -- that are intended to perform a function and can be evaluated accordingly.

There is a different unifying principle for most non-STEM disciplines -- among them English, history, politics and civics, languages and literatures, education, the arts, philosophy, psychology and sociology -- which I call the human disciplines. All of the subjects within human disciplines are fundamentally interested in people and with subjectivity. Our disciplines not only illustrate esoteric questions of the meaning and purpose of life but are also uniquely well suited to explore questions of how to live and work with other people. In practical terms, if the job requires being able to work with and understand people -- particularly those different from yourself -- these degrees can, and should, make you better suited for it. They promote empathy, and require students to regard problems, and people, with complexity and the understanding that no single answer is right.

These kinds of jobs exist in all walks of life and include CEOs, kindergarten teachers, judges, advertisers, curators, coaches, social workers and many others. They form the linchpin of our society. They not only drive our economy but also make our country a better place to live by having good, well-trained people doing these jobs.

And these jobs are not just lucrative; they offer meaningful work. Understanding how to work with and inspire people makes you better suited to organize those around you toward a common goal, to write, speak and think with power and clarity, and to improve the lives of others. And, in practical terms, these are the jobs that are the least likely to be automated away.

So the onus is on us, within the human disciplines, to organize, to step up in the public arena, to work together -- beyond the ivory towers of our colleges and universities -- to fight for our continued existence. The skills we have to offer are tangible. The jobs we prepare our students for are plentiful and meaningful. We have at least 20 years of catching up to do in making our case to the public, but our disciplines have well prepared us for the task.

Paul B. Sturtevant is a research associate in the Office of Policy and Analysis at the Smithsonian Institution. He received his Ph.D. in Medieval Studies. He regularly writes at The Public Medievalist and tweets at @publicmedieval.

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New data on what humanities majors earn

Study agrees with conventional wisdom that they earn less majors in other fields, but challenges idea that they gain little (financially) from their degrees.

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Column on event paying tribute to essayist George Scialabba

On Aug. 10, the City Council of Cambridge, Mass., passed, by unanimous vote, a resolution to which even the local media gave scant notice. But the document merits attention throughout the Republic of Letters, and quoting it at some length seems in order, since paraphrase would not do it justice:

“WHEREAS: George Scialabba is retiring on Aug. 31, 2015, from his job stationed in the basement of Harvard’s Center for Government and International Studies, having diligently fulfilled the room scheduling needs of overpaid professors for 35 years; and

“WHEREAS: Scialabba has published over the same period nearly 400 essays, reviews and commentaries concerning literature, science, politics and morality from the perspectives of the bemused, the nonprivileged and the unsmug; and

“WHEREAS: To that end, Scialabba has spent thousands of hours pacing his apartment on Washington Avenue, gnashing his teeth over the sorry spectacle of American politics and the fearful mayhem of American capitalism, while himself hanging on by his fingertips,

“NOW THEREFORE LET IT BE RESOLVED: That the City of Cambridge hereby proclaims Sept. 10, 2015 ‘George Scialabba Day’ to honor Scialabba for staring unflinchingly into the abyss and reporting what he has found there in sensitive, true and graceful prose …”

In 2006, this column did its part to further the appreciation of George Scialabba by giving notice of Divided Mind, a sampler of his work in the form of a chapbook, issued by a small literary press called Pressed Wafer. Divided Mind was modest both in size and prize run, but it whetted enough readers’ appetites for the publisher to bring out What Are Intellectuals Good For? in 2009. Two more collections have appeared since then; a fourth volume is on its way. (All available through online retailers or the press itself.)

To continue with the Cambridge City Council proclamation, picking up where the ellipsis left off:

“RESOLVED: That the City of Cambridge encourages those of its residents who still practice the habit of reading to place their collective tongues in their collective cheeks and to celebrate the achievements of George Scialabba on Sept. 10, 2015; and finally

“RESOLVED: That the city clerk is hereby requested to forward a suitably embossed copy of this resolution to the Committee to Preserve George Scialabba and Others Like Him (If Any).”

And so Noam Chomsky and Barbara Ehrenreich will be among the featured speakers tomorrow night at “Three Cheers for George Scialabba,” to be held at the Brattle Theatre in Cambridge. Tickets for the event were sold out as of Sunday. And that was before the Boston Globe’s prominently placed feature on the event. (Large blocks of tickets were purchased by well-read but ruthless scalpers, according to the rumor I just thought up.)

The Committee to Preserve George Scialabba consists, as far as I can tell, mainly of John Summers, editor of The Baffler, where Scialabba is a contributing editor. In an email note he describes the planned course of Thursday night’s festivities as a series of toasts by speakers -- running “anywhere from 10 to 15 minutes or so” each, followed by a hoisting of the glasses -- which will be interspersed with the screening of a video consisting of tributes by friends and readers who can’t attend. It will be made available online the next day.

“The toasts will branch out from [George’s] person,” Summers says, “into the larger, collective issues and situations of contemporary intellectual life. We will focus on the persistence of independent-minded writing and thinking outside the professions and institutions -- the sort of people who don't need to ask permission.” (Summers has been named by Scialabba as his literary executor and will presumably handle the Library of America edition of his essays.)

So much acclaim would swell the heads of most people. My impression from speaking with Scialabba by phone is that he is happy but embarrassed and will likely remain in that state for the duration. As a young man he was a member of Opus Dei -- a Roman Catholic organization primarily for laymen, known for its unyielding advocacy of theological tradition. And although studying intellectual history as a Harvard University undergraduate eventually cost him his religious faith (“the foundations had been crumbling all through my junior and senior years”), it seems that the years of quasi-monastic discipline mortified the ego right out of him.

The experience of leaving a closed but rigorous moral and intellectual worldview left him in a position that has been difficult and, at times, painful, but also rewarding, at least for his readers. It taught him “that ideas matter,” the historian Rick Perlstein writes in the preface to Scialabba’s next book. “That they are a matter of life and death …. He believes that achieving freedom, whatever the generals on CNN and the editorialists of The Wall Street Journal say, is neither a function of American arms or the sacred working out of the laws of supply and demand. It is caused by human beings exercising their reason, autonomously, from the ground up.”

The title of that forthcoming volume is Low, Dishonest Decades: Essays and Reviews, 1980-2015. The indicated span happens to coincide with the years Scialabba has been a clerical worker at Harvard, managing the building that houses the Center for International Affairs and a number of smaller research centers. Part of the legend that circulates among his admirers concerns a file cabinet in his basement office that was filled with all the writing he'd done when not busy scheduling room usage or checking on the progress of air-conditioning repairs.

It turns out that not only is the story true but that the files are still there. Clearing them out remains his last workplace-related chore. He says there are no unfinished books among them, or manuscripts for posthumous discovery -- and that with Low, Dishonest Decades, most of the work he’d want preserved will be between covers, apart from a few recent essays. I was disappointed to hear that, at least initially.

But now he has a good pension (“thanks to the Harvard Union of Clerical and Technical Workers,” he stresses) and more time. So let me end by repeating what I said in the video that will be shown on Thursday night: while the world is not exactly crying out for more memoirs, an exception can be made for the memoirs of someone who joined Opus Dei as a teenager and read his way out of it. The tributes to George Scialabba will soon be over; let his late-life flourishing begin!

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George Scialabba

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